LONDON -- Ever since United Kingdom voters narrowly decided in June 2016 to head for the European Union's exit, and Donald Trump was subsequently elected president in the United States five months later, both the Trump White House and Brexit's most ardent supporters have elevated a potential U.K.-U.S. free-trade deal to mythic status.
Once free of the shackles of the EU and its single market, they argue, Britain will be free to negotiate a massive trade pact with America that would help ease any economic damage to the U.K. economy caused by its divorce from Europe. And that economic damage could be huge if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal -- a scenario that's become more likely now that Boris Johnson, the arch-Brexiter and former foreign minister, has taken over as prime minister of the Conservative government.
Just last weekend Trump was claiming (without evidence) that bilateral trade talks for a "very substantial" trade agreement had already commenced, one that would very quickly result in a "three to four, five times" increase in American-British trade.
But according to experts in international trade, that's a fantasy. Any free-trade deal inked by the U.S. and Britain would likely be very narrow -- far too small to do much to bolster the U.K. economy -- and it certainly couldn't be done anytime soon.
"It's fanciful," L. Alan Winters, director of the UK Trade Policy Observatory at the University of Sussex, says of a fast-track deal. Moreover, adds John Springford, deputy director of the think tank Centre for European Reform and an expert on global trade: "An offsetting trade deal with the U.S. will not make up for the loss of trade to the EU."
That's because by a wide margin the EU is Britain's largest trading partner. Forty-six percent of the UK's exports, worth around $375 billion, go to the EU, while 54% of all imports into Britain, worth $450 billion, come from EU member states. Nevertheless, trade between Britain and America is robust. U.K. exports to the U.S. total around $64.4 billion, or 13.3% of its total exports, while Britain imports $46.6 billion worth of goods and services from the states, 7.5% of its total amount of its imports.
Because significant trade between Britain and the U.S. already exists, and tariffs on most goods are already low, there's little scope for a free-trade agreement to increase activity between the countries by any meaningful margins.
"There is no reason to think there's a great deal of trade we could do that's not already being done," Winters says.
One prime area would be agricultural goods. Earlier this year, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released a wish list of what it would want in a U.K.-U.S. deal. It included things that are anathema to British consumers -- and now banned by the EU -- including opening the U.K. market to chlorine-washed chicken and beef from hormone-fed cattle.
"Chicken and beef would be hugely controversial," says David Henig, who heads a trade policy project at the European Centre for International Political Economy. And if the U.K. did open its market to American agricultural goods, it would devastate the domestic industry. "That's why they (farmers) are already lobbying against it, and will most likely win."
Also on the USTR's list is pharmaceuticals. Britain's National Health Service is a single-payer system, which gives it enormous leverage in setting prices for the medicines and devices it buys. And because it's so big, what it pays affects global prices, pushing them downward. Accordingly, the U.S. would like the NHS to allow for higher prices for American pharmaceuticals. "That would be very unpopular," Winters says, "so it's not going to happen."
Forty-five percent of British exports are services. But, Winters says, services agreements are very difficult to do because they're not managed by tariffs, but by regulators, agencies that aren't keen to open up to the rest of the world. "It's all about control, and foreign (providers) are harder to control."
So given all the limitations, Springford says, any deal "won't be particularly deep or comprehensive. It will be very shallow."
It also would take years to complete.
If the U.K. exits the EU with a withdrawal agreement, there would be a transition period of two or more years, to give London and Brussels time to negotiate their own free-trade pact. And during that interval, while the U.K. could talk trade with America, it couldn't implement a trade agreement until the transition period ended.
And anyway, U.S. officials would want to wait and see what the final U.K.-EU deal looked like, because it would need to know how much Britain has voluntarily realigned itself with EU regulations (like food standards that ban chlorinated chicken).
If, however, the U.K. crashes out of the EU on Oct. 31 -- the latest deadline for Brexit -- it would be free to immediately start negotiating trade agreements with the U.S. and any other countries.
In the aftermath of a crash-out, it would make more sense for the Johnson government to first seek a new deal with Brussels, because the EU is its largest trading partner. But Johnson would be under pressure from hardcore Brexiters to instead strike new deals with the U.S. and other countries. "The problem is the government may want to put politics before economics," Springford says.
Typically, it usually takes around a decade to negotiate the complexities of a free-trade deal. That said, a deal with the U.S. "could be done in one to two years, if the U.K. agrees to all the U.S. demands," Henig says. "But that's not going to happen. It will be very tricky for the U.K. once it sees what's required and that it has to trust Trump."
So in either scenario -- a Brexit with or without a withdrawal agreement -- it's virtually impossible for America and Britain to strike a deal before the 2020 elections. "There is no chance on Earth of that happening," Henig says.
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Meanwhile, American politics could also eventually doom any deal.
If Trump isn't re-elected, a new Democratic president would likely put the kibosh on any trade talks started by the Trump administration.
If Trump does win a second term and reaches a free-trade accord with Britain, however, Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives say such a deal would be dead on arrival if it also comes on the back of a no-deal Brexit. That is because a crashing-out of the EU could resurrect a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, violating the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
"It's not a pretty picture," Springford says.
Thomas K. Grose is a U.K.-based journalist who has spent much of his career living and working in Britain and Washington, D.C. Grose has reported from across Western Europe and Latin America, regularly contributing to several news organizations, including U.S. News & World Report, Time, USA Today and ASEE Prism magazine. Follow him on Twitter.